You might not know that it’s against Wisconsin law for a public school to start a new school year before Sept. 1. In light of learning losses as a result of the virtual-only learning forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, some school districts are seeking an exemption. We think such exemptions should be allowed.

Mark Gruen, district administrator for the Royall School District in Elroy, summed up the past 12 months as “extremely challenging,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported April 12.

Gruen’s district halted in-person classes in March 2020 after Gov. Tony Evers ordered schools closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. While Royall reopened last fall with public health precautions in place, some students have continued taking online courses and many have faced a loss of learning. “We’ve got some kids who are lagging behind,” Gruen said.

Last month, the Royall district requested and received from the state Department of Public Instruction a waiver from state law, allowing the district to begin classes as early as Aug. 23. DPI has received and approved 11 such requests so far in 2021, with seven of the requests citing disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, to start classes before Sept. 1, a school board must hold a public hearing and approve a request for a special exemption. Then DPI must approve the request. Districts seeking a one-year exemption must prove “extraordinary” circumstances, including major construction projects at the school or closures caused by “forces of nature, code violations or environmental orders.”

We would argue that not being able to be in a traditional classroom from the middle of last March until this March, as happened in the Racine Unified School District, is an extraordinary circumstance.

Christina Brey, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said WEAC’s members believe local districts can best decide what makes the most sense for their students: “Lawmakers don’t work face to face with students every day and know what they need—but teachers do.”

Wisconsin’s Sept. 1 school start date law was enacted after a substantial effort in 1999 by state tourism groups, which spent more than 780 hours over a six-month period lobbying lawmakers.

This session, state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would eliminate the law starting with the 2022-23 school term, with the tourism industry staunchly opposed.

Eric Knight, president of the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, said Wisconsin’s tourism industry had a run of annual revenue growth until the state was upended by the pandemic. In 2019, tourism supported 202,000 jobs and resulted in $1.6 billion in state and local taxes, he said. However, last year there was a 42% drop in travel spending due to the pandemic, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Bill Elliott, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, said the Sept. 1 start date rule also ensures that younger employees, primarily high school students, have work opportunities over the summer months.

We’re not immune to the argument made by the tourism groups. But we think that this year, districts in which students have fallen behind should be allowed to start the school year earlier to get those students caught up.

We urge a one-year suspension of the Sept. 1 mandate so that districts that determine their students would benefit from an earlier start to the next school year can do so and that tourism-based businesses can be assured the Sept. 1 law will be back in place in 2022.

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